By Laura Ness
Philana Bouvier, VP Fine Wine, Supplier Business Development at Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), a world class distributor of fine wine and spirits in North America, has some advice for 2021. She points to critical thinking, the ability to innovate and the constant need for reinvention as essential to “building brands that remain relevant and desired by consumers,” especially in this pandemic that has turned existing business models on their heads.
Bouvier is no stranger to adversity, having started at the lowest rung on the totem pole in the industry over 20 years ago, when she moved to Hawaii at the age of 16, having graduated high school early. Since then, she has held several leadership roles within wholesale, most recently having led new business development at Young’s Market Company and was responsible for lead generation, prospect management, and new supplier engagement. She began her current position after RNDC and Young’s Market merged in 2019.
Out of chaos, though, comes opportunity. It is the ability to see a window instead of a door that has enabled some of the wineries in her portfolio to thrive, while others are struggling to survive.
Bouvier shares that her winery clients who “got it” during the early days of the pandemic, quickly realized they had to focus on new channels, as the traditional on-premise outlets were rendered moot. They quickly moved to service the retailers who could attract the kind of high-end clientele that traditionally consumed their brands in restaurants.
“Your old consumer who was drinking your wine in high-end restaurants is now buying lobsters and caviar in the Club channel, and your wine needs to be there too! And if it’s not, they will buy someone else’s. Consumer loyalty in wine and label recognition is way lower than most people think.”
Successful wineries also turned to online sales as a way to make up for lack of tasting room revenue. And they leveraged their existing relationships with their direct consumers, seizing the opportunity to market to them using the data they had been collecting from previous interactions.
Those who were slower to react either did not have strong direct customer relationships or marketable online presences. Her advice? “Be flexible and willing to pivot,” says Bouvier, “The wineries that made necessary changes during March and April may have had a better year than before Covid. If you waited, you fell behind. Buyers are harder to access, their space may have been reduced for essential goods and they are busier than ever.” Add to that the challenges of meeting face to face, along with labor shortages, making it more difficult to change out displays.
Bouvier credits her SVP, Estates Group, Marin Blomquist, RNDC California, for providing great insight and leadership into how wine suppliers need to strategize and ‘pivot’ towards the future. He strongly suggests listening to your distributor, and she echoes him, saying, “Take advice! Don’t wait. Listen to the intelligent members of your distribution team. Leave old prejudices behind.”
She feels “super-blessed” to be working for such a powerhouse like RNDC, from where she could see the dramatic shift in channel consumption as the pandemic took hold. “On premise was where you’d find the gems, the fine wines that somms and bartenders would recommend. Customers relied on their favorite restaurants to bring in their favorite brands. Now, their home is the restaurant. If they can’t find the high-end brands they love at their local retailers, they are going to turn to online retailers like wine.com or Drizly. Some will seek you out online. You had better have your e-commerce working and your digital assets up-to-date!”
Bouvier predicts the wineries that continue to flourish will be those who really take note of how the consumer buying habits are changing. “To succeed in the wine business in 2021, wineries have to understand the channel of business their wine is sold in. Whether it’s online platforms, chains, independent retailers and stores, every state in the U.S. is going to be different.”
Wineries that don’t embrace the Club channel now will be caught out. “Don’t be prejudiced against channels you haven’t used before!” She suggests watching what all the club stores and online retailers are doing, like Amazon. Also pay attention to Whole Foods. Consumers are changing their buying habits, and you have to change with them.
This is also a good time for wineries to be thoughtful, inclusive and welcoming of diversity, which will help evolve the company culture and have a direct impact on consumers. She points to one brand, Honig, that immediately stepped up with a beautiful digital campaign that offered nice touches like beautiful gift bags and paella tastings. “They understood the importance of continuing to build relationships.”
In particular, she says, “Use a personal touch. Remember birthdays. Reach out to customers when they haven’t purchased in a while, and check in on them. After all, wine is all about relationships and it brings people together.”
Lastly, take advantage of this tremendous time of change to roll with the tide and look at the glass as half full. After all, challenges make us stronger.
“We are all learning from each other,” Bouvier says. “Be open to constructive feedback. You are building a legacy brand. People will remember what you did during the pandemic. Make sure your story is genuine, inclusive and honest. Younger generations are starting to consume wine, which is great news, but they are savvy to disingenuous marketing and traditional advertising. They especially do not like to be sold to or specifically targeted. Instead, understand where and how they shop.”
The best part of this pandemic which presents perhaps the greatest opportunity for 2021? Says Bouvier, “I’ve become much closer to my clients. Everyone wants to do better and help each other out. It’s a time for collaboration, and a time for getting to know each other better.”
Read more Bold Predictions from industry experts.